One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to get out of the big city and take a day trip somewhere in the countryside. As much as I love all the culture, art, museums, restaurants, tourist attractions and shopping there is to do in a city, after a few days I crave some fresh air and peace away from all the crowds and stimulation. It was no different with our recent trip to London. We had planned on four full days in London and knew that we would be able to cover all the things we wanted to do in three, meaning we would have time to do a side trip.
There are many options for day trips outside of London and it all depends on how much you want to spend and what you want to do. The most popular day trip is to Bath, the Windsor Castle and Stonehenge yet this trip can take over ten to twelve long hours to complete and the most economical way to do it is via tour bus. We wanted to do something a little different so instead we opted to hire a private driver for the day. We had used the same driver for our transportation from the airport to central London and Mr. Singh proved to be a fantastic guide.
Normally I am a huge planner however for this trip we decided to wing it. That was probably our first mistake because careful research would have told us that the Windsor Castle – home to the Queen and 900 years of history – was closed on the day we were hoping to visit. It is the most popular castle to see given it is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and only an hour and a half drive outside of London. We didn’t realize it was closed until the morning of our day trip so we had to come up with a Plan B immediately. I knew that the girls would love to see a castle over Stonehenge so we decided on the Warwick Castle located about two and a half hours northwest of London. It was going to be a long day but hopefully worth it.
We left at nine am from our perfectly located apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square with our driver Mr. Dil Singh in a six passenger SUV. Dil was born in India but has been living in London for years and was a real treat. I sat up front as I like to always talk with the locals to learn as much as I possibly can about where I’m visiting. I told Dil that although we have been enjoying London it was a bit too touristy at this time of year and he wistfully replied “London is like a four bedroom house with 15 people living in it“. I laughed and agreed with his assessment of trying to fight the crowds of people walking the streets of Central London. It was going to be nice to get away from it all for the day.
We took M40 due north passing the rolling green hills of the countryside, talking away. About an hour into the drive, my niece noticed with concern that the speedometer read 100. Silly me told her not to worry and that we were going 100 kilometers per hour not miles per hour which converts into approximately 62 mph, our standard speed limit on most US Highways. I then launched into a speech on how Europe and most of the world go by km/h and how we are different in that regard. It took our driver Dil three attempts to correct my mistake because I thought he was joking. After all these years I honestly had no idea that England does indeed use miles per hour! When it finally got through my head that we were truly going 100 mph we told him to slow down. He was just going with the flow of traffic but for us, it felt a bit nerve-wracking because we never drive that fast in the US even on huge open highways in the middle of South Dakota. We continued our drive in the slow lane being passed by everyone but at least we felt more relaxed. Poor Dil was mortified that he upset us which we assured him that he did not. It is just one of those cultural differences that comes with traveling (not to mention driving on the other side of the road!).
We arrived at the Warwick Castle just before lunch and it unfortunately began to rain. The skies were dark and gloomy yet it gave the entire place a rather mystical feel like you’d imagine when visiting a medieval castle in the English countryside. Based on the website, I wasn’t sure what to expect with the castle. I had imagined it would be like some over-the-top Disney-like place but it actually ended up being pretty darn cool and a great first castle for the girls to see. Best of all, it wasn’t mobbed with tourists like most of the other attractions we’d seen.
The Warwick Castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 on the grounds of a burg (hilltop settlement) dating back to 914. Located in Warwick at the bend of the River Avon, in 2001 the castle was named one of Britain’s “Top 10 Historic Houses and Monuments” by the British Tourist Authority. Its long, fascinating history of well over a thousand years is what brings many tourists to its grounds and you can easily spend an entire day exploring the castle and taking in some of their shows, activities and attractions. For us, we only had three hours which was enough to see most of the grounds, visit the Great Hall exhibits and take in some of the Birds of Prey show. We had also purchased tickets to the Castle Dungeon Tour which includes creepy encounters with live actors and special effects but unfortunately our show was unexpectedly canceled. Ironically, a tourist had fainted during the horror show and paramedics had to be called. Maybe it was a little too scary?
The Castle Grounds
The entrance to the Warwick Castle is located at The Stables Courtyard where there is a small restaurant and cafe, gift shop and ticket office. Once you purchase your tickets, you follow the gravel roads that surround the great walls, battlements, towers and turrets of the castle. It is quite majestic! There is a fun maze for the kids surrounding the castle grounds as well as a beautiful park and historic Mill and Engine House all outside the walls and Central Courtyard. If you want to make a day or even a night out of your visit, you can attend some of the shows during the day or evening, and even spend a night at the Tower Suites, Knights Village Lodges or try Medieval Glamping. There is plenty to do and keep you busy.
The Great Hall
My favorite part of the castle was the Great Hall and State Rooms. It is the only furnished part of the castle and is loaded with history on all the past inhabitants who lived in the castle over the years. There are even wax replicas of some of the most famous residents and at first glance they look eerily real. I could have spent a lot of time inside this part of the castle but the girls were constantly on the go and had more fun running around the maze than reading all the plaques about history.
The Mill and Engine House
Behind the castle right next to the river lies the Mill and Engine House which is interesting to visit and affords a gorgeous view of the river and the castle’s 64 acres of lush, rolling landscape and gardens. If it wasn’t raining, it would have been lovely to spend time viewing the gardens.
By 1:30 pm, we were all famished and the dining options at the Castle were disappointing. We decided to drive a bit further to Stratford-Upon-Avon, known as “Shakespearetown” since it is the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We arrived around 2 o’clock on a Sunday which happened to be Father’s Day so the town was bustling with activity. We settled on a lovely Italian restaurant for lunch and only had a few minutes to run over and peak at Shakespeare’s birthplace and family home. We regretted not having more time because Stratford-Upon-Avon is a lovely, charming town that we just happened to fall upon. Next time as I always like to say!
We arrived back in London a little past six exhausted from such a long day of travel but a bit refreshed. The country air had done us well! It was a quick shower, off to dinner and bed way too late as usual. But of course it was all very worth showing the girls their very first castle.
If you go:
Stay: Rent a studio or roomy two bedroom apartment at the Citadines Trafalgar Square. The location could not be more perfect as you are within walking distance to all the main attractions and tons of shopping and dining options. This is the second time I’ve stayed at this hotel and if I go back, I will stay there again. Tip: Ask for an apartment on a lower level if you are going in the summer as the air-conditioning isn’t great and these rooms are generally cooler.
You can also stay at one of the available lodging near the castle if you truly want to take it all in. I personally think the glamping option would be a blast.
See: The Warwick Castle is an excellent option for children. Plan on a minimum of 2 1/2 – 3 hours to visit the castle however there are plenty of other activities you can do if you want to make a day out of it. The Castle offers birds of prey shows, a dungeon show, and much more. Plus it has a lovely park behind the castle for a picnic if the weather is nice. If you book your tickets in advance online, you can save 30% which is huge as the castle tour is not cheap.
Learn: To learn more about the castle and view all the different attractions, visit www.warwick-castle.com